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In Buddhism, a mental fetter, chain or bond (Pāli: samyojana, Sanskrit: saṃyojana) shackles a sentient being to saṃsāra, the cycle of lives with dukkha. By cutting through all fetters, one attains nibbāna (Pali; Skt.: nirvāṇa).
Fetter of suffering
- "Monks, I don't envision even one other fetter — fettered by which beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time — like the fetter of craving. Fettered with the fetter of craving, beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time."
- Ven. Kotthita: "How is it, friend Sariputta, is ... the ear the fetter of sounds or are sounds the fetter of the ear?..."
- Ven. Sariputta: "Friend Kotthita, the ... ear is not the fetter of sounds nor are sounds the fetter of the ear, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there...."
Lists of fetters
1. identity view (Anatman)
up to seven rebirths in
once more as
4. sensual desire
once more in
6. material-rebirth desire
Sutta Pitaka's list of ten fetters
The Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka identifies ten "fetters of becoming":
- belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
- doubt or uncertainty, especially about the Buddha's awakeness and nine supermundane consciousnesses (vicikicchā)
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
- sensual desire (kāmacchando)
- ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo)
- lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo)
- lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo)
- conceit (māna)
- restlessness (uddhacca)
- ignorance (avijjā)
As indicated in the adjacent table, throughout the Sutta Pitaka, the first five fetters are referred to as "lower fetters" (orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni) and are eradicated upon becoming a non-returner; and, the last five fetters are referred to as "higher fetters" (uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni), eradicated by an arahant.
Both the Saṅgīti Sutta (DN 33) and the Dhammasaṅgaṇi (Dhs. 1002-1006) refer to the "three fetters" as the first three in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten:
- belief in a self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
- doubt (vicikicchā)
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
Abhidhamma Pitaka's list of ten fetters
The Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhamma Sangani (Dhs. 1113-34) provides an alternate list of ten fetters, also found in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Culla Niddesa (Nd2 656, 1463) and in post-canonical commentaries. This enumeration is:
- sensual lust (Pali: kāma-rāga)
- anger (paṭigha)
- conceit (māna)
- views (diṭṭhi)
- doubt (vicikicchā)
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
- lust for existence (bhava-rāga)
- jealousy (issā)
- greed (macchariya)
- ignorance (avijjā).
The commentary mentions that views, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, jealousy and greed are thrown off at the first stage of Awakening (sotāpatti); gross sensual lust and anger by the second stage (sakadāgāmitā) and even subtle forms of the same by the third stage (anāgāmitā); and conceit, lust for existence and ignorance by the fourth and final stage (arahatta).
Uniquely, the Sutta Pitaka's "Householder Potaliya" Sutta (MN 54), identifies eight fetters (including three of the Five Precepts) whose abandonment "lead[s] to the cutting off of affairs" (vohāra-samucchedāya saṃvattanti):
- destroying life (pāṇātipāto)
- stealing (adinnādānaṃ)
- false speech (musāvādo)
- slandering (pisunā)
- coveting and greed (giddhilobho)
- aversion (nindāroso)
- anger and malice (kodhūpāyāso)
- conceit (atimāno)
For English translations, see 
The following fetters are the first three mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka's list of ten fetters, as well as the Saṅgīti Sutta and Abhidhamma Pitaka's list of "three fetters" (DN 33, Dhs. 1002 ff.). As indicated below, eradication of these three fetters is a canonical indicator of one's being irreversibly established on the path to Enlightenment.
Identity view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
Etymologically, kāya means "body," sakkāya means "existing body," and diṭṭhi means "view" (here implying a wrong view, as exemplified by the views in the table below).
Similarly, in MN 2, the Sabbasava Sutta, the Buddha describes "a fetter of views" in the following manner:
|The views of six śramaṇa in the Pāli Canon|
(based on the Buddhist text Sāmaññaphala Sutta1)
|Amoralism: denies any reward or|
punishment for either good or bad deeds.
|Niyativāda (Fatalism): we are powerless;|
suffering is pre-destined.
|Materialism: live happily;|
with death, all is annihilated.
Matter, pleasure, pain and the soul are eternal and
do not interact.
|Restraint: be endowed with, cleansed by|
and suffused with the avoidance of all evil.2
|Agnosticism: "I don't think so. I don't think in that|
way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not."
Suspension of judgement.
|Notes:||1. DN 2 (Thanissaro, 1997; Walshe, 1995, pp. 91-109).|
2. DN-a (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995, pp. 1258-59, n. 585).
- "This is how [a person of wrong view] attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? ... Shall I be in the future? ... Am I? Am I not? What am I? ...'
- "As one attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises: ...
- 'I have a self...'
- 'I have no self...'
- 'It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self...'
- 'It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self...'
- 'It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self...'
- 'This very self of mine ... is the self of mine that is constant...'
- "This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed ... is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress."
More specifically, in SN 22.84, the Tissa Sutta, the Buddha explicitly cautions against uncertainty regarding the Noble Eightfold Path, which is described as the right path to Nibbana, leading one past ignorance, sensual desire, anger and despair.
Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)
Śīla refers to "moral conduct", vata (or bata) to "religious duty, observance, rite, practice, custom," and parāmāsa to "being attached to" or "a contagion" and has the connotation of "mishandling" the Dhamma. Altogether, sīlabbata-parāmāso has been translated as "the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice" or, more simply, "fall[ing] back on attachment to precepts and rules."
While the fetter of doubt can be seen as pertaining to the teachings of competing samana during the times of the Buddha, this fetter regarding rites and rituals likely refers to some practices of contemporary brahmanic authorities.
Cutting through the fetters
with the fetters
"Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the eye and material forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (eye and forms); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be. [And thus] he understands the ear and sounds .... the organ of smell and odors .... the organ of taste and flavors .... the organ of touch and tactual objects .... [and] consciousness and mental objects ...."
In MN 64, the "Greater Discourse to Mālunkyāputta," the Buddha states that the path to abandoning the five lower fetters (that is, the first five of the aforementioned "ten fetters") is through using jhana attainment and vipassana insights in tandem. In SN 35.54, "Abandoning the Fetters," the Buddha states that one abandons the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as impermanent" (Pali: anicca) the twelve sense bases (āyatana), the associated six sense-consciousness (viññaṇa), and the resultant contact (phassa) and sensations (vedanā). Similarly, in SN 35.55, "Uprooting the Fetters," the Buddha states that one uproots the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as nonself" (anatta) the sense bases, sense consciousness, contact and sensations.
The Pali canon traditionally describes cutting through the fetters in four stages:
- one cuts the first three fetters (Pali: tīṇi saŋyojanāni) to be a "stream enterer" (sotapanna);
- one cuts the first three fetters and significantly weakens the next two fetters to be a "once returner" (sakadagami);
- one cuts the first five fetters (orambhāgiyāni samyojanāni) to be a "non-returner" (anagami);
- one cuts all ten fetters to be an arahant.
Relationship to other core concepts
Similar Buddhist concepts found throughout the Pali Canon include the five hindrances (nīvaraṇāni) and the ten defilements (kilesā). Comparatively speaking, in the Theravada tradition, fetters span multiple lifetimes and are difficult to remove, while hindrances are transitory obstacles. Defilements encompass all mental defilements including both fetters and hindrances.
- Anatta, regarding the first fetter (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
- Four stages of enlightenment, regarding cutting the fetters
- Five hindrances, also involving the fourth (kamacchanda), fifth (vyapada), ninth (uddhacca) and second (vicikiccha) fetters
- Upadana (Clinging), where the traditional four types of clinging are clinging to sense-pleasure (kamupadana), wrong views (ditthupadana), rites and rituals (silabbatupadana) and self-doctrine (attavadupadana)
- See, for instance, the "Snake-Simile Discourse" (MN 22), where the Buddha states:
"Monks, this Teaching so well proclaimed by me, is plain, open, explicit, free of patchwork. In this Teaching that is so well proclaimed by me and is plain, open, explicit and free of patchwork; for those who are arahants, free of taints, who have accomplished and completed their task, have laid down the burden, achieved their aim, severed the fetters binding to existence, who are liberated by full knowledge, there is no (future) round of existence that can be ascribed to them. – Majjhima Nikaya i.130 ¶ 42, Translated by Nyanaponika Thera (Nyanaponika, 2006)
- The "fruit" (Pali: phala) is the culmination of the "path" (magga). Thus, for example, the "stream-enterer" is the fruit for one on the "stream-entry" path; more specifically, the stream-enterer has abandoned the first three fetters, while one on the path of stream-entry strives to abandon these fetters.
- Both the stream-enterer and the once-returner abandon the first three fetters. What distinguishes these stages is that the once-returner additionally attenuates lust, hate and delusion, and will necessarily be reborn only once more.
- Thanissaro (2001).
- Bodhi (2000), p. 1230. Tangentially, in discussing the use of the concept of "the fetter" in the Satipatthana Sutta (regarding mindfulness of the six sense bases), Bodhi (2005) references this sutta (SN 35.232) as explaining what is meant by "the fetter," that is, "desire and lust" (chanda-raga). (While providing this exegesis, Bodhi, 2005, also comments that the Satipatthana Sutta commentary associates the term "fetter" in that sutta as referring to all ten fetters.)
- These fetters are enumerated, for instance, in SN 45.179 and 45.180 (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1565-66). This article's Pali words and English translations for the ten fetters are based on Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, "Saŋyojana" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 660-1, "Sakkāya" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines sakkāya-diṭṭhi as "theory of soul, heresy of individuality, speculation as to the eternity or otherwise of one's own individuality." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.179, translates it as "identity view"; Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "the view of individuality"; Harvey (2007), p. 71, uses "views on the existing group"; Thanissaro (2000) uses "self-identify views"; and, Walshe (1995), p. 26, uses "personality-belief."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 615, "Vicikicchā" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines vicikicchā as "doubt, perplexity, uncertainty." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.179, Gethin (1998), p. 73, and Walshe (1995), p. 26, translate it as "doubt." Thanissaro (2000) uses "uncertainty." Harvey provides, "vacillation in commitment to the three refuges and the worth of morality" (cf. M i.380 and S ii.69-70).
- See, for instance, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 713, "Sīla" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), regarding the similar concept of sīlabbatupādāna (= sīlabbata-upādāna), "grasping after works and rites." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.179, translates this term as "the distorted grasp of rules and vows"; Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "clinging to precepts and vows"; Harvey (2007), p. 71, uses "grasping at precepts and vows"; Thanissaro (2000) uses "grasping at precepts & practices"; and, Walshe (1995), p. 26, uses "attachment to rites and rituals."
- For a broad discussion of this term, see, e.g., Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 203-4, "Kāma" entry, and p. 274, "Chanda" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09). Bodhi (2000), p. 1565 (SN 45.179), Gethin (1998), p. 73, Harvey (2007), p. 71, Thanissaro (2000) and Walshe (1995), p. 26, translate kāmacchando as "sensual desire."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 654, "Vyāpāda" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines vyāpādo as "making bad, doing harm: desire to injure, malevolence, ill-will." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.179, Harvey (2007), p. 71, Thanissaro (2000) and Walshe (1995), p. 26, translate it as "ill will." Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "aversion."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 574-5, "Rūpa" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines rūparāgo as "lust after rebirth in rūpa." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.180, translates it as "lust for form." Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "desire for form." Thanissaro (2000) uses "passion for form." Walshe (1995), p. 27, uses "craving for existence in the Form World."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 574-5, "Rūpa" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), suggests that arūparāgo may be defined as "lust after rebirth in arūpa." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.180, translates it as "lust for the formless." Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "desire for the formless." Harvey (2007), p. 72, uses "attachment to the pure form or formless worlds." Thanissaro (2000) uses "passion for what is formless." Walshe (1995), p. 27, uses "craving for existence in the Formless World."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 528, "Māna" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines māna as "pride, conceit, arrogance." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565, SN 45.180, Thanissaro (2000) and Walshe (1995), p. 27, translate it as "conceit." Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "pride." Harvey (2007), p. 72, uses "the 'I am' conceit."
- For a distinction between the first fetter, "personal identity view," and this eighth fetter, "conceit," see, e.g., SN 22.89 (trans., Thanissaro, 2001).
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 136, "Uddhacca" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), defines uddhacca as "over-balancing, agitation, excitement, distraction, flurry." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565 (SN 45.180), Harvey (2007), p. 72, Thanissaro (2000) and Walshe (1995), p. 27, translate it as "restlessness." Gethin (1998), p. 73, uses "agitation."
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 85, "Avijjā" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), define avijjā as "ignorance; the main root of evil and of continual rebirth." Bodhi (2000), p. 1565 (SN 45.180), Gethin (1998), p. 73, Thanissaro (2000) and Walshe (1995), p. 27, translate it as "ignorance." Harvey (2007), p. 72, uses "spiritual ignorance."
- For single-sutta references to both "higher fetters" and "lower fetters," see, DN 33 (section of fives) and AN 10.13. In other instances, a sutta regarding the lower fetters is followed by a sutta regarding the higher fetters, as in: SN 45.179 and 45.180; SN 46.129 and 46.130; SN 46.183 and 46.184; SN 47.103 and 47.104; SN 48.123 and 48.124; SN 49.53 and 49.54; SN 50.53 and 50.54; SN 51.85 and 51.86; SN 53.53 and 53.54; and, AN 9.67 and 9.70. In addition, the five lower fetters alone (without reference to the higher fetters) are discussed, e.g., in MN 64.
- For the Saṅgīti Sutta's list of three fetters, see, e.g., Walshe (1995), p. 484. For the Dhammasaṅgaṇi's list of three, see Rhys Davids (1900), pp. 256-61. Also see, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, entry for "Saŋyojana" (retrieved 2008-04-09), regarding the tīṇi saŋyojanāni. (C.A.F. Rhys Davids (1900), p. 257, translates these three terms as: "the theory of individuality, perplexity, and the contagion of mere rule and ritual.")
- See, e.g., MN 6 and MN 22.
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, "Saŋyojana" entry references Cula Niddesa 657, 1463, and Dhamma Sangani 1113. In fact, an entire chapter of the Dhamma Sangani is devoted to the fetters (book III, ch. V, Dhs. 1113-34), see also Rhys Davids (1900), pp. 297-303. (Rhys Davids, 1900, p. 297, provides the following English translations for these Pali terms: "sensuality, repulsion, conceit, speculative opinion, perplexity, the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the passion for renewed existence, envy, meanness, ignorance.") In post-canonical texts, this list can also be found in Buddhaghosa's commentary (in the Papañcasudani) to the Satipatthana Sutta's section regarding the six sense bases and the fetters (Soma, 1998).
- Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 467-469, and Upalavanna (undated) Archived 2010-11-02 at the Wayback Machine. For a Romanized Pali transliteration, SLTP (undated).
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 660-1, "Sakkāya" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09). See also, anatta.
- Thanissaro (1997a).
- Thanissaro (2005)
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 597, "Vata (2)" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
- Ibid., p. 421, "Parāmāsa" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
- Ibid., p. 713, "Sīla" entry regarding the suffix "bbata" (retrieved 2008-04-09).
- Thanissaro (1997b).
- For instance, see Gethin (1998), pp. 10-13, for a discussion of the Buddha in the context of the sramanic and brahmanic traditions.
- Soma, 1998, section on "The Six Internal and the Six External Sense-bases." It is worth underlining that only the fetter is abandoned, not the sense organs or sense objects.
- Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 537-41.
- Bodhi (2000), p. 1148.
- Bodhi (2000), p. 1148. Note that the referenced suttas (MN 64, SN 35.54 and SN 35.55) can be seen as overlapping and consistent if one, for instance, infers that one needs to use jhanic attainment and vipassana insight in order to "know and see" the impermanence and selfless nature of the sense bases, consciousness, contact and sensations. For a correspondence between impermanence and nonself, see Three marks of existence.
- See, e.g., Bhikkhu Bodhi's introduction in Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 41-43. Bodhi in turn cites, for example, MN 6 and MN 22.
- Gunaratana (2003), dhamma talk entitled "Dhamma [Satipatthana] - Ten Fetters."
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (18 Jan 2005). MN 10: Satipatthana Sutta (continued) [Ninth dharma talk on the Satipatthana Sutta (MP3 audio file)]. Available on-line at http://www.bodhimonastery.net/MP3/M0060_MN-010.mp3[permanent dead link].
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